In 2016, almost 9 million Americans were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis—and more than 1 in every 4 of them was over the age of 45. But how can chronic bronchitis be treated? In this post we will dive into the basics of chronic bronchitis and explore causes and potential treatments to help the millions of Americans and their family members understand and deal with this diagnosis.
Basics of Bronchitis
Many people who develop chronic bronchitis don't even know it. Why? In part, because they confuse its symptoms with those of other medical conditions like emphysema or common cold. Bronchitis often occurs after a cold or flu. It develops as bronchial tubes become infected and swollen. Symptoms include a nagging cough and stubborn mucus. Typically, these symptoms go away. However, recovery depends on the type of bronchitis, which we will explore in the next section.
Different Types of Bronchitis
There are two primary forms of bronchitis, acute and chronic. Let’s learn more about each of them.
Acute bronchitis is the more common case of bronchitis. Its duration is typically short, usually a month or less. Generally, acute bronchitis is not considered a serious medical condition.
The symptoms of acute bronchitis might resemble those of a cold, including a sore throat and runny nose. Other symptoms you might experience include chills, fatigue, phlegm that's yellow, green or white, a tenderness in your chest, wheezing, and a nagging, hacking cough.
Chronic bronchitis, however, is substantially more serious. This type of bronchitis persists for an extended period of time. In many cases, symptoms decline, but they continue to return. The principal difference between acute and chronic bronchitis is the persistence of the latter.
Although those who develop chronic bronchitis experience many of the same symptoms as acute bronchitis, for them symptoms last for at least 3 months in a given year, and for more than 2 consecutive years. Chronic bronchitis and its associated symptoms can lead to protracted illness, hospitalization and, in the serious cases, death. Individuals who experience symptoms suggestive of chronic bronchitis should visit a doctor to explore treatment options.
Chronic bronchitis is actually included in the larger medical category of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD includes several progressive pulmonary diseases that all include obstructions of airflow. Chronic bronchitis is one of the most common types of COPD. More than 3 million Americans die of COPD-related medical complications each year, making it important for seniors with chronic bronchitis to pay attention to their symptoms.
Bronchitis can be caused by a virus or bacterium, the same ones that lead to a cold or the flu. As your body fights off those viruses or bacteria, it produces more white blood cells. Individuals experience this boost as mucus, which also causes swelling in your bronchial tubes. The combination of bronchial swelling and increased mucus production creates narrower airways, making it harder to breathe.
The single biggest risk factor for developing bronchitis (both acute and chronic) is age. The older you are, the weaker your immune system tends to be. That’s why more than 75% of people who develop bronchitis are over 45 years old.
Of course, seniors are not the only people with compromised immune systems. Young children and individuals who have compromised immune systems are at greater risk than the general population.
Smoking also increases your risk for bronchitis—whether you smoke or you live with someone who smokes. You could also develop bronchitis if you're employed in jobs that involve dangerous, chemical substances (like those in the mining or agricultural industries). Finally, excessive levels of air pollution can add to the risk for developing bronchitis, which means that people who live in urban areas where pollution levels are relatively high are at greater risk.
Treatment for Chronic Bronchitis
There are several effective treatments for bronchitis, but it’s important that you seek medical attention before the disease worsens. If you suspect bronchitis, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible.
Your doctor will first ask you a series of questions. Your answers will help diagnose chronic bronchitis. Your doctor might ask how long you've been coughing, if it's difficult for you to catch your breath, whether you're coughing up mucus, and if you've seen blood in your sputum. After you answer these and related questions, your doctor will perform a physical examination. You may also be asked to get a chest x-ray or sputum culture.
Once your doctor has all the information they needs, they can recommend effective treatments tailored to your symptoms. These treatments could include the following:
- Rest: Resting might seem a minor treatment for a major problem, but getting plenty of quality rest and lots of fluids is among the most effective treatments for bronchitis.
- Cough suppressants and pain relievers: These medications help relieve a hacking cough and body pains. However, if you're coughing up mucus, your doctor will probably not give you a cough suppressant because the cough is actually helping to keep your airways clear.
- Humidifier: Humidifiers can help clear your airways and make it easier for you to breathe.
- Bronchodilator: Bronchodilators are devices that enable you to breathe in medications that reduce the symptoms of bronchitis.
- Antibiotics: Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics to relieve your symptoms if your bronchitis is cause by bacteria. If your bronchitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't help.
- Steroids: Steroids (which are inhaled through an aerosol spray) can be effective in treating the symptoms of chronic bronchitis. Your doctor will likely recommend other treatments before turning to steroids because they can have serious side effects, including high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Oxygen therapy: If you have chronic bronchitis, your doctor might recommend using an oxygen tank or oxygen concentrator to aid difficult breathing.
Developing bronchitis is one of several health challenges may face. A senior with chronic bronchitis may have difficulty performing tasks of daily living due to constant coughing or fatigue. Fortunately, our caregivers are trained to help seniors with bronchitis or an other form of COPD to get the help they need. Learn more about COPD and how home care services can help seniors struggling with this disease in our Complete Guide to COPD.